ITHACA, N.Y. — If you follow local development news regularly, you’ll know there has been growing interest in Ithaca’s waterfront. As such, the city has drafted a plan to help guide future projects, encouraging affordable housing, mixed-use development, public access to the waterfront, and multi-modal transportation options.

City officials are reviewing the final draft of the planning department’s Phase II Comprehensive Plan for the Waterfront and near-Waterfront blocks. The plan has been in the works since Ithaca’s citywide Phase I Comprehensive Plan was approved by Common Council in September 2015.

Now, you might be looking at this article, and thinking, “didn’t they just update the zoning down there?” And, the short answer is yes, they did, back in August 2017. Since then, the city’s waterfront was identified as a high-priority area for a neighborhood-specific comprehensive plan not long after Phase I wrapped up. Updating the zoning was priority one of the working group of planning staff and community members when they began meeting in Fall 2016, and all the working meetings and open houses that followed.

Once the zoning was approved came part two of the task – providing guidance for what the community wants to see there, in the form of the Waterfront Plan. Zoning is prescriptive and detail-oriented – say, a building can be up to four floors and its footprint can cover 40% of its lot. Meanwhile, the Comprehensive Plan speaks more to broad desires, challenges and goals.

Think of it like this. Say you’re looking at buying a house. You want one floor to age in place, you want a garage so you’re not brushing 10 feet of snow off the Volvo in January, and you don’t want a house on Main Street with its traffic noise, but you want to be close by for the easy commute.

The Waterfront Plan is a lot like that. It’s what the city wants and doesn’t want. The whole point of it is, if someone’s eying the waterfront for some dream project, the city wants to have this 66-page document handy so that they can consult it to make sure their goals mesh with the city’s. The hope is that it saves both the developer or landowner and the city from a lot of grief in the long-term. No one wants $50,000 thrown at designing and engineering a project only to have that proposal make its Planning Board debut and go over like a lead balloon.

Just like the zoning, the Waterfront Plan divides up its analysis into four separate areas – the “Cherry Street District,” the “West End / Waterfront District,” the “Market District” and the “Newman District.” The plan establishes three overarching themes in its recommendations, relying on ecological sustainability, social equity, and collaboration between the community, government, and major institutions

Some of the ideas expressed in the plan are standard fare – protecting and enhancing neighborhoods, growing and building a more equitable economy, engaging and embracing diversity. The bigger question is, what does the city and its stakeholders want to see, and where do they want it?

Broadly speaking, the city wants similar goals from all four areas. All districts are open to mixed-use developments. There’s an emphasis on new housing with either senior, for-sale, and affordable low-moderate income housing (50-120% area median income) options. Other wide-ranging goals include public access to the waterfront, encouragement of multi-modal transportation (bikes, buses, pedestrians) and the fluff word of every municipal planner, “vibrant” spaces, meaning that the waterfront is welcoming at all times of the year.

Cherry Street is one of the few remaining areas where the city is open to light industrial uses, and in fact, the zoning prohibits housing south of Cecil B. Malone Drive. However, poor traffic circulation, increasing land costs and difficult soils (as Emmy’s Organics discovered) pose major barriers. Along with a desire for new low-impact industrial uses, city planners also envision live/work spaces (like the Arthaus project) and commercial buildings designed with a nod to the area’s industrial character.

The main goal for the West End / Waterfront District is to improve traffic flow and enhance non-auto travel options. Some of the goals include building connections to the waterfront trail, working with TCAT for improved bus routes, adding better lighting, crosswalks, and bike lanes, and signage to help visitors get to their destination without tying up local traffic as much. Historic structures like the former train/bus depot are to be protected, and mixed-use infill is encouraged.

The new GreenStar Co-Op under construction.

The Market District is largely made up of Carpenter Park and the NYS DOT parcel, both of which the city identifies as prime opportunities for redevelopment. This is also where the new GreenStar flagship store is being built. Projects here should explore “synergies” with the wastewater plant (like using the plant’s excess heat to supplement energy use) and the Farmer’s Market.

Lastly, the Newman District is seen as a good opportunity for mixed-use projects that embrace being on the water and keeping the waterfront accessible to the public – marinas, promenades, and Waterfront Trail enhancements (like a loop trail through the golf course). In the long-run, the city wants to explore moving its and TCAT’s facilities to allow for re-development. This is where City Harbor is proposed and is working with the city to obtain grants to build a public waterfront promenade.

These all sound like a bunch of cute, high-minded goals, right? Think of it as a carrot-and-stick approach. The more boxes a project checks off – net-zero energy, affordable housing, preservation of historic structures – the more accommodating the city is likely to be for a tax abatement (via CIITAP) or flexibility on the zoning (via PUDOD). As for the stick, try getting a project through the planning board that no one likes – it might be more fun to throw money into Cayuga Lake because the result will be about the same.

What’s next from here is acceptance by the Common Council as a formal guidance document, which barring any big pushback, would be likely at their October meeting. From there, it becomes official guidance. It states goals of a traffic study, facility relocation and other long-term city initiatives, but nothing explicitly changes.

It’s a document meant to serve as a reference over the next decade as projects big and small come forth for parcels along Ithaca’s shores and in the Greater West End. Hopefully, those landowners and developers will give this a read-through and take its advice to heart, so that they end up spending less time revising plans and more likely to deliver something with benefits to them and to the Ithaca community.

Read the draft plan here.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.